Commentary Magazine


A Stone Should Live Alone:
A Story

My mother had just turned forty when my father died. During the seven days of deep mourning, an elderly landsfrau of my mother’s, Esther Tamarkin, came to visit us.

“I have been, blessed be God, a widow for over twenty years,” sighed Esther. “I have lived by myself, and a stone should live alone. Learn from my example. A woman like you with three young children should look forward, not back,”

“What can I do if God has seen fit to punish me?” asked my mother.

“What’s done can’t be undone,” said Esther. “If you remarry, will you wrong the memory of your husband? It will be better for the children and for you too.”

“How can you speak of such a thing?” said my mother, her eyes filling with tears.

“May the harm I intended fall on my head,” said Esther, and she fell silent.

In the long weeks and months that followed, other people came with the same thoughts in their heads. “I know a man, a widower whose children are all married and out of his house,” said my Uncle Aaron. “He is not too much older than you and he wants a home. Your children will not stand in the way.”

“You may mean well, but let me alone,” my mother said bitterly. “I can bring my children up by myself. So long as God gives me strength, I need no help from anyone.”

Mother was not given to self-pity, but every Friday night, the Sabbath eve, was a terrible trial to her courage. When she blessed the Sabbath candles, sighs came unbidden from deep within her. The tablecloth gleamed white and the two twisted loaves peeked from under the embroidered doily. But no man came from the synagogue to make the blessing over the wine and sing the Sabbath songs. The Sabbath, which had been so joyful while my father lived, turned to a day of gloom. My sisters and I came to dread it.

One evening Mother looked up from the potatoes she was grating for pancakes and told us, “Today I rented the back bedroom.” There were four of us in a flat of five tiny rooms in a decaying, gaslit tenement. “Are we so poor we need a boarder?” cried my sister Rebecca. “There is hardly room enough for us.”

“I will be doing a good deed—a mitzvah,” my mother said.

“Isn’t there anyone else who could use a mitzvah?” asked Rebecca.

“Our boarder will be a man who goes to our synagogue. He has no home, the poor person. Perhaps he will sit at our table on Friday nights,” my mother went on. Rebecca said no more.

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Our roomer, or boarder as we called him, turned out to be a shoemaker, a skinny, middle-aged man with an enormous Adam’s apple, and glasses which sat almost on the tip of his nose. He left each morning before we were out of bed. For the first week or two we saw him only when he let himself into our house and, nodding a quiet good evening, disappeared into his room.

“A lonely man, this Mr. Tarnigail,” said Mother. “His wife is still in Europe.”

“Why doesn’t she come to America?” I asked.

My mother shrugged her shoulders. “Such a question it wouldn’t be right for me to ask. He hasn’t enough money perhaps. Or maybe it’s the quota.”

“What’s a quota?” I asked.

“Questions and more questions! Go explain the quota to a six-year-old!” exclaimed my mother. “It means that since the war, it is hard for people to come to America.”

Mother never shut the door on compassion. After supper, one evening, she knocked on our roomer’s door and called, “Would you like a cup of tea, Mr. Tarnigail?”

He came to the door and smiled shyly. “Thank you, but why should you trouble?” he said.

“Trouble?” echoed my mother. “Look, I have a whole kettle full of hot water. Sit down at the table. The tea is waiting already.”

After that he sat in our kitchen every evening, smelling pleasantly of fresh leather and nodding his head like a sleepy goat as he set down his glass after each sip of tea. Sugar was scarce and expensive at that time, and he kept a lump of hard candy between his teeth to sweeten the tea. Sometimes he reached his bag of candy to me and said, “Take. Don’t be stingy.” Occasionally he brought me scraps of leather which I hoarded jealously although I couldn’t think of what to do with them. I grew to like our roomer.

True, when my mother had rented the room, there had been no word said of meals. Yet if a man looked shrunken from hunger, could her heart be content with the pouring of a glass of tea? On a Thursday evening Mother sat watching our roomer’s thin face as she refilled his glass. At last she asked, “And where do you eat on Shabbos?

Our roomer reddened. “Sometimes here, sometimes there,” he said cryptically.

“If my cooking will satisfy you, eat with us this Shabbos,” said Mother. “I cook and bake anyway. So I’ll make enough for one more person.”

It was good to see my mother’s face the next night when our guest sang the blessing over the wine. His voice was melodious, and he leapt from bass to falsetto like a real cantor. Mother’s cooking was obviously to his taste. She heaped his plate high of everything—gefilte fish, roast chicken, candied carrots, stuffed derma, and potato pudding—and he devoured it as if he had just ended his Yom Kippur fast. As fast as she cut the twisted loaves, the thick white slices disappeared. (“May no evil eye befall him,” she whispered to us.) And after he had eaten his fill, he sang the old familiar Sabbath melodies, poignant echoes of our happier past. Almost we had our Sabbath joy again!

_____________

 

How could Mr. Tarnigail remain the shy stranger in our midst after that night? He began to come home earlier, while we were still at the kitchen table in the evening. “Eat with good appetites, friends!” he said, lingering before the door to his room. “Such wonderful smells remind me of the old country.” Before long he was eating with us every evening. My mother accepted payment for his food but, with his remarkable appetite, our guest ate more than he paid for. He remarked once, “Are you sure that I am paying enough? I am a hearty eater.”

“What are you saying?” said my mother. “If I can save a human being from being poisoned in some restaurant, the mitzvah alone is already enough pay.”

After supper, Mr. Tarnigail usually unfolded a copy of my mother’s favorite Yiddish newspaper, the Tageblatt, and sat at the kitchen table reading aloud. Mother never wasted a moment. She sewed, she ironed, she baited and set mouse traps. But gradually her face relaxed, and the tight little lines around her mouth creased into a smile. When he read something from the humor column, he kept peering over the top of his glasses to watch the effect on her. If the jokes hit their mark, his eyes lit up pixie-like. He was earning his extra helping of boiled brisket surely.

But Mother was not the only one who challenged Mr. Tarnigail. The loss of my father had left its unhappy mark on me, and I grew rebellious and moody. I opposed my mother at every turn, refused to come up out of the street when she called me, howled at all hours if I were denied my way, and fought with my sisters. One day I scratched my sister’s face so badly, she was ashamed to leave the house for a week. My mother one evening poured out her heart to our roomer. “The boy is beyond me. There’s only one thing left. I shall send him to an orphan home. There at least he will be taught to obey,” she said.

I was within earshot in the front room, and my heart jumped. By the gaslight in the kitchen I saw the shoemaker raise his bony hands in horror. “You are a God-fearing woman!” he exclaimed. “Drive that thought from your mind. Do you want to ruin your son for life?”

“You see how I slave for my children. What wouldn’t I do for them?” my mother answered. “But how can I go on with the boy?”

“Do you think the boy is wild and disobedient because he wants to be that way?” Mr. Tarnigail asked softly. “If only his father weren’t gone, he would be the same as other boys.”

“Does the child lack for a home? Enough to eat? A warm coat in winter?” my mother asked distractedly.

Our roomer sat silently looking at my mother for a few moments. “Let the boy grow,” he said at last. “Time is a healer. You will speak of your son with joy yet.”

“You give me a little hope. The One Above can work miracles,” said my mother, but there was doubt in her voice.

_____________

 

My mother’s threat to send me to an orphan asylum worried me all of the next day, but my anxiety expressed itself in a strange way. In the evening my mother sat peeling apples for a pie from a basket which stood at her feet. She cut away the rotten part of each apple, and cored and peeled the rest.

“May I have an apple to eat?” my sister Rebecca asked. My mother picked out the best apple she could find and gave it to my sister. As my sister munched away, I cried, “I want an apple too, Mama.” Mother peeled one and gave it to me.

“No, I don’t want it. It isn’t as good as Rebecca’s,” I said.

“It’s the best one I could find,” my mother said. “Don’t eat it if you don’t like it.”

“I want Rebecca’s apple,” I said stubbornly.

“How can I give you that apple? Your sister has already eaten it,” my mother said.

“I want the apple you gave her. Just like it was when you gave it to her,” I insisted. I think I understood how unreasonable my demand was, but a mad impulse drove me on.

At her wit’s end, my mother slapped my face. I threw myself on the floor and screamed, “I want Rebecca’s apple! I want that apple!”

My tantrum alarmed our roomer. He came out of his room, picked me up and set me on his knees. My sobbing gradually quieted down.

“A fine big boy like you making such a fuss over nothing!” he said gently. “How would you like a piece of my candy?”

“No—I want the apple!” I repeated, but without force.

“And if I gave you more than one piece-maybe four or five?” he asked. The temptation was more than I could stand against. “All right,” I said and held out my hand.

Thereafter Mr. Tarnigail lent a hand in my growing up. “An angel and a devil are fighting inside you to see who is boss,” he would say, looking at me over his glasses. “Come, let us see how we can help the angel.”

One day the angel was in a bad way: to tease my mother I crawled up on the window sill and hung over the ledge of the open window. Half hysterical but too frightened to come near me, my mother could only keep pleading tearfully to me to come back in while I gloated at the commotion I was stirring up. Wordlessly the shoemaker pulled me from the window and shut it. “Ah, what pleasure the devil is having now, my boy,” he said. “If you could really see how cruel it was to tease your mother! When you grow up, you will understand how wrong it is to be cruel.” His face clouded for a moment. “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree. Already I see the kindness in your face.”

Somehow I never felt that our boarder was preaching to me. He never scolded, never blamed. To be well thought of by him soon became the most important thing in the world to me. My mother marveled, “With me you are a stubborn ox. But if Mr. Tarnigail only looks towards you, you’re as gentle as a bird.” She was grateful to him, but her gratitude was not without envy. Yet when she saw me growing more tractable each day, like a horse that had been gentled, she said, “There are miracles. God and Mr. Tarnigail.”

_____________

 

Though our roomer became by degrees almost a member of the family, a bit of mystery always clung to him. My mother knew only that he had come to the sexton of our synagogue and asked if he knew of a room for rent in an Orthodox home. He never mentioned the town in the old country from which he had come. My mother guessed from his Yiddish speech that he came from the Polish border country of Russia. When she brought up wife and children, he steered the conversation in other directions or excused himself suddenly. He seemed a man who had cut himself off from a past he wished to forget.

Mr. Tarnigail’s past overtook him abruptly. He had been rooming with us for about a half year when it happened. He seemed so much one of us now that we could hardly remember our house without him. And then, late one afternoon in February when a chill misty dusk was settling over our street, I saw a man and woman standing near the barbershop opposite our house and staring up at our windows. Even in the half-light I could see that the woman, who was middle-aged and stout, looked fiery-faced as if she were angry. The man was younger, thin and dark-faced.

When I opened a window and put my head out, they both gesticulated excitedly. I stuck my tongue out at them and shouted, “Hey, you—skidoo!” Without a word the man and woman turned their backs and disappeared around a corner.

I thought about this strange happening, feeling more uneasy the more I puzzled. At supper I said to my mother, “Mama, a man and lady were standing across the street today. And they were looking up to our windows and I told them skidoo and they ran away. Why did they do that, Mama?”

Mr. Tarnigail choked on a bite of pumpernickel. “What kind of a man and lady?” he asked. I described them. He got up suddenly, said he was not feeling well, and went into his room.

We were nearly through with our meal when a loud knock sounded on our door. I ran to open it. The fiery-faced woman and the dark-faced man stood before me. “Does Moishe Goluboff live here?” he demanded belligerently. The woman brushed me aside and, as if by instinct, strode straight to the closed door of the shoemaker’s room. She came out a moment later dragging him by his shirt and crying in a strong Galician accent, “You shamed me before all the neighbors in Brownsville. Now it is my turn. The whole world will see what a scoundrel I married!”

To my mother she shouted, “I should tear every hair out of your head. Oh, I heard about you! A pious woman! So pious she tears a husband away from the wife whose heart bleeds for him!”

The dark-faced man bellowed, “It may interest you to know that I am his son. We’re not through with you yet. We have a lawyer!”

My mother was too amazed to answer either of them. Wordlessly we all watched as our roomer was dragged coatless through the flat. Through our open door we heard him bleating faintly as they bumped down the stairs, “Let go! You’ll kill me!”

For the next day or two a gloomy quiet hung about our house. Mother left Mr. Tarnigail’s room undisturbed. He returned one evening, paid my mother what he owed, and sheepishly collected his belongings. As he turned to go, he paused for a moment at the door. He looked at all of us in turn over his spectacles. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down in his skinny neck, and he seemed to search for words. At last he said, “If a man doesn’t hit it right, how sad it is! Here I found peace for the first time in my life. So good I’ll never have it again.”

_____________

 

The door closed, and there was silence for a few moments. I thought my mother was going to cry. Instead she began laughing. It was a good laugh, loud and girlish and the first in many months. I didn’t understand why mother laughed when I expected her to cry, but somehow it came to me that a dark period in our lives had ended. We could not forget our terrible disappointments, but we now had the strength to stand up before them.

Mr. Tarnigail had seen us through the worst. We never forgot him. In our memories he was not a deserter of home and family, but a helping Elijah who had dropped on us from nowhere when we needed him most. He had set our feet forward, and forward we would go from now on.

And yet old Esther Tamarkin had been right after all: my mother survived my father by more than a quarter century, a widow still at her death. If Mr. Tarnigail hadn’t had a wife and a son in Brownsville, it might have been different. Who can deny it? A stone should live alone.

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